When I was a young boy, eastern Indiana’s White River (East Fork) was where I felt most at home. Although I splashed and played in and around it’s waters, it never occurred to me to call this “nature” because that word always felt reserved for someplace out there — someplace big, and distant from people and homes and the endless acres of soy and corn that surrounded me—maybe the Rockies, or a remote jungle far, far away. I’ve traveled through the glaciers of Alaska and Iceland, to the jungles of Cambodia; from the Serengetti through northern China, and somehow find myself back home, in Indiana. Here, in the heart of the Midwest you find a diverse ecology of prairie and old growth forest largely gone, but not completely. Our cities and homes are full of nature, too, and Indiana has its very own ecology and geology that demands that we be good stewards of our home. To have a healthy place to live and play, we must learn to live within its contours.  

Millions of years ago Indiana was a shallow ocean, teaming with primordial sea life that, through great time and pressure, became the limestone that defines our geology. We find their fossils along highways and creek beds. This limestone is showcased in much of our civic structures, which in turn represents our cities.  

Millennia after rising out of the ocean, glaciers moved back and forth over the northern regions of this land, grinding hills flat for centuries. When they finally receded over 10,000 years ago, they left in their wake a rich and deep soil. We see this in our fecund farmland today. We see how far the glaciers got, where bedrock, ridges, and hills appear in the bottom third of our state, after a largely flat north. They too helped define what we grow and eat. The culture of place is much more deeply rooted beyond human activity alone.   

That deep loam soil turned Indiana into a rich oak savannah, with enough trees that it is said a squirrel could cross the state without ever touching the ground. Large, now-extinct mammals roamed freely, such as the gigantic mastodons, ground sloths, and Saber-toothed cats bigger than any feline on the planet today. Humans nearly eradicated the large megafauna, and only 1% of the old growth forests remain, carved up into neat and highly productive fields of corn and soy.

Of course it is a state named for Indians, and has been a site of human activity for more than 12,000 years. When Indiana was ceded to the USA by the Miami and Delaware Nations through the Treaty of St. Mary’s in 1818, the human population was well under 100,000, with only 6,000 whites. Now there are 6,732,000 people here including remnants of the Potawatomi and Miami. Although this land's geology and natural history continue to define it, the mark of humans are everywhere. So often, these marks look like scars.   

But, I don't think that has to be true. Do you? Everywhere I look there are Hoosiers doing invaluable work to steward this land for future generations; making Indiana a healthier place to live, work, and play. A place of beauty, with access to the finest features of nature. Even the bison — shown fleeing our axes on our state seal — are now returning. Tree plantings are underway and the local food movement is proliferating. Everywhere you look, there are great signs of hope. 

This series features the leaders of this revolution. Those people organizing, inspiring, and fighting to protect this land for the enjoyment of all. They inspire me to stay, to plant my roots here, and raise my son here where the Whitewater and its fossil beds still haunt and inform my great debt to this state. They are leaders helping us all to remember and honor the ecology that made our place unique, and find ever-changing ways to continue to make it our own.

Articles in Ben Valentine's series: